There is plenty of research that shows us that children learn best through PLAY! What is play?  How do children learn through play?

Serina Teo, Curriculum Specialist at Shaws Preschool, shares how children learn through play, and  tips & tricks on how best to support your child’s play, & making the most out of your shared playtime.

What is PLAY?

Play is a process that is enjoyable, something you want to do, and something that brings you joy and happiness


When children play, they are developing in many areas.  It is nothing frivolous or “just play”.  At the foundation level, children are developing their executive function during these play episodes.  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Executive Function is “a group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organizing tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal-directed behaviour.”

Typically, children try and fail, and try and fail and then try again.  They go through the process and learn not to repeat the same mistakes, until they achieve what they set out to do.  We take the simple example of construction play.  When children try to build something with blocks, they go through repeated tries and failure, experimenting with different ways to stack the tower so that it will not fall.  A child gets immense pleasure from the eventual success.  But of course, this is provided adults do not provide the answers too quickly. Children will not be pushed to try if the solution comes too quickly to them.

As Jean Piaget had said “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.”

Play is essential in developing the skill set needed in this 21st century.  So what skill sets are we talking about here? We are talking about someone who is knowledgeable, able to collaborate, communicate, think critically in all situations, and be creative. This person should also be confident in all his/her dealings

An excellent example would be a play episode at the school’s Mud Kitchen (Socio-dramatic Play / Social Play). When children come together to play, they need to work together with the resources they have (collaboration).  They first discuss if they want to use it as a café or a restaurant? (communication).  When a problem arises, be it real or out of the imagination (creative thinking) of the children, they need to try and resolve the problem (communication and critical thinking).  During the process, each child gets to pitch in his/her ideas (knowledge) and with time, confidence will grow.

Here’s another excellent example of how a K2 child solved her own problem (creative & critical thinking) as she created her own play.  She set up collection station along the passageway leading to the class toilet.  Her classmates collaborated and played with her, by pretending to pay-up before heading to the toilet.  It took a lot of confidence for her to try this out, without even discussing with the classmates. She created this role because she wanted the role of a seller, but those were all taken up.  This is also a very good example of how this girl imitated what she saw in her life

Play is an excellent way for children to learn and be prepared for formal schooling.  Many concepts are built on the foundation of play.   For instance, through the process of making pizza, children are exposed to measurement, weight, volume while making the pizza (Explorative Play and Mastery Play).  After the pizza is baked, they need to decide many slices to cut; how many slices each of them can eat.  Through this, the children are exposed to the concept of division and fraction.  They are then able to apply the ideas and concepts during formal learning.  They will then be able to visualise what the teacher is talking about when ¼ becomes something concrete to them.  They will recall that I got to eat 1 piece out of the 4 pieces I cut out.  This in turns prepare the children for modelling concept used extensively in Primary school.  It’s important that children understand the concept, not just memorising formulas.  A child who understands the value of 10, is better off than someone who can rote count to 1000.

For toddlers, play provides the same opportunity for them to develop executive function. Toddlers engage in Mastery Play when they try repeatedly at pegging, scooping, pouring, scribbling or painting.  However, we must remember that younger children have an even shorter attention span, thus providing them with a wide variety of activities is important.

 In a fast-paced society like ours, play offers children an outlet to de-stress.  Like adults, children get stressed.  Just rushing them from one location or activity to another can be a form of stress to them.  It builds a safe, stable and nurturing environment and relationships (with adults) that help children buffer against stress.

How can I provide Play experiences for my child?

Provide your child with open ended toys (like blocks, soft toys, puppets, empty boxes etc).  Ensure they have a safe and open space to play in, like a playroom, or a spacious living room (push the coffee table to the side).  Allow your child the use furniture and accessories in the house.  This gives children a wide berth for imaginative play.

This also means that your home will be in some state of mess when you have young children. So, set up baskets so it’s easy for them to just put everything back into the baskets, without having to pack them nicely.

Must I play with my child?

Yes and no.  While adults should provide some basic structure, we need to give children the autonomy to develop their own play independently.  When you play with your child, it’s important that you enjoy it too.  Your child should not dominate play, and neither should you.   When your child dominates the play, you would not enjoy it, and he can see it.  You are also telling him it’s OK for him to insist his way.

When you dominate the play, you are not allowing your child to gain the benefits we talked about earlier.  So, it should be a lot of give and take.  Through playing with parents in this way, children will also learn to operate in this way with their peers … give and take, negotiate, looking at it from the other person’s perspectives.  Playing with your children can come in the form of cookery, painting or even bubble play in the shower.

When you have children of a wide age grp, you can facilitate their play, but let the children do what’s appropriate for his/her respective age group, and then collaborate.  This is a perfect way for them to play together (collaboration) and learn how to socialise at the same time.  To help kick start this collaborative process, it may be easier for parents to step in to facilitate play.   Get the ball rolling by doing something to help your older child, and then rope in the younger one into the process.  Later, suggests ways for the older child to include his younger sibling.  Again, your children can model from how you facilitate and play with them.

ShawsPlay – Learning though Play at Shaws Preschool

Many of the different forms of play mentioned here are part of the ShawsPlay curriculum.  Like Imaginative Playwhen the child creates their own problem to resolve, Communicative Play, when the children exchange ideas, and Mastery Play, when children do something repetitively during play, and gaining mastery of the act / process.

Through ShawsPlay, children can develop the 21st century skills set needed.  The knowledge they need comes in the form of the 6 learning areas, while the other skills like collaboration, communication, problem solving, creative thinking, confidence are all part of the Essential Life Skills that children can develop through ShawsPlay.

To help our teacher embrace play as part of our lessons, we provide both theory and on the ground training opportunities.   Naturally, as teachers are adults, a higher level of training is involved, specifically with the theoretical aspects.  However, when it comes to trying it out, what better way, than for teachers to experience play?  Some of the things we’ve done with the teachers includes teaching them a new language through game; food tasting to determine ingredients found in Guacamole, and from there delve deeper into the ingredient of their choice.


If your purpose is to prepare your child for both academic success and life skills, the learning through Play approach offers your child development in both areas.  Being academically prepared will only see a child through school.  But being prepared for life, will see a child beyond school.  If you look at our entire life, only the first 20-25 years (for most people) are spent in school.  The rest of our days we are experiencing life.

As adults, we should allow children many opportunities to play.  It fosters development in so many areas that no structured activity could fully offer.   When you choose to play with them, enjoy the process with them.  They will pick that up from you and enjoy the process as well.  Learning then comes naturally.

Serina Teo, Curriculum Specialist, Shaws Preschool